Friday, February 10, 2006

Day 1 - Rome

It has been nearly a year since our last visit to Italy, that one in March 2005 with our four children in tow (and that one a different story to be told later) and our plane lands in a cold, damp fog at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport early in the morning, with our thoughts full of anticipation. The flight over has been uneventful, just the way we like it, and we are able to sleep a fair amount, the last sleep we will get for another 18 hours.

We fight through a phalanx of car service, bus service and independent taxi drivers, all begging us to engage them for the half hour ride to Rome. We opt, instead, for an official taxi in the queue just outside the terminal. The journey takes us past Eur, a monumental and monumentally ugly city built by Mussolini during his reign and through the city gates where we effortlessly ease back into the cacophony that is Roman traffic, a fitting representation of the rhythm of Roman life.

The taxi pulls in front of our hotel, the Locanda Cairoli, a smallish, comfortable hotel for locals and tourists alike located in the Piazza Benedetto Cairoli. The piazza, a small, run down square that is difficult for Americans to pronounce is virtually invisible to Roman taxi drivers – none, at least that we have met, has ever heard of it. We roll our small armada of luggage into the entryway of the building, down a long corridor, snagging every doormat and rug under our wheels, dragging them the length of the hallway to the entrance of the elevator, a turn of the century device obviously developed when humans were smaller and thinner than they are now and long before luggage was invented. We cram the fleet into these close quarters and Bill rides up with the bags, Suzy wisely deciding to take the stairs.

Amazingly, our room is ready even though it is before 10 in the morning. We are invited by the reception to help ourselves to breakfast and coffee, which we do. We plan our excursion for the day, thinking that we will see some sights and do a little shopping until lunchtime, then possibly retire for a nap sometime in the afternoon.

We leave the hotel and head directly for the Campo dei Fiori, one of Rome’s most inviting spots and a definite favorite of ours. An outdoor market of fresh fruits and vegetables, with some butchers, fishmongers, confectioners and a few misplaced vendors of low end clothing more suited for a fleamarket, the Campo dei Fiori never disappoints, even in the day’s cold gray mist. We are entranced by the incredible bounty of it all, the overflowing bins stuffed with endless varieties of lettuces and herbs, shiny red tomatoes that set off pavlovian gushes of saliva, zucchini, eggplants and colorful peppers and today is even made even more memorable by scattered fires in barrels, lit by stall owners to warm them and their customers on this damp, chilly day. Perched up on a crate is a large round melon of some sort, as big as a basketball and brown, the color of a football. It is only when we view it from the other side, with its innards exposed, do we discover that it is a pumpkin ("zucca"), its orange flesh and seeds looking every bit as tempting as our orange cased jack ‘o lantern variety.

We pry ourselves from this display and head toward the Tiber, our destination the Palazzo Farnesina which, according to an American Express Departures magazine featuring Italy that we squirreled away several years ago, contains an example of tromp l’oeil that is not to be missed. Sensing this, our city map plays its own tricks on our eyes, leading us in an enormous spiral that eventually leads to the palazzo.

The exhibit is interesting but rather unremarkable, the most engaging aspect being an adorable group of 5 year old Italian school children, sitting on the floor of one of the rooms, listening attentively to their teacher speak of Rafaello while the assistant teacher snaps flash photo after flash photo in the shadows of a sign prohibiting visitors from sitting on the floor or taking photographs of any sort. Italians reputedly don’t pay their taxes, either.

The Salone della Prospettive with the renowned tromp l’oeil fails to wow. The large salon is painted with columns that frame a distant landscape, which is supposed to make the viewer believe that the room has no wall, just columns that frame a distant landscape. And the painter succeeds, but only if you stand in one particular spot on the floor and even then only if you squint and imagine that you are on a terrace, with a distant landscape framed by columns. Our advice: if you have to walk 15 and ½ miles in an ever tightening spiral to visit the Palazzo Farnesina, you might consider skipping it. If you have a good car service that can drop you right in front, it’s worth a visit.

Lunch beckons, and after all, food is perhaps the principle reason we have come to Italy. We wander past the Trevi Fountain to the Piazza San Silvestro and duck into Tritone (via Dei Maroniti, 1-3-5, tel. 06/6798181, a smallish, simple trattoria in a pretty shishi area of Rome. We start with a roast artichoke roman style – grilled and lightly marinated in vinegar. We had seen multitudes of fresh artichokes (carciofi) at the Campo dei Fiori this morning and they are buonissimo. Suzy follows this with a plate of grilled fish and Bill has abbachio, a grilled lamb dish. Suzy’s strategy in choosing the grilled fish v. fried fishes is that you generally get better fish if it is grilled. When ordering the fritti misti, restaurants generally heap piles of unidentified tiny fishes, which could well be guppies or neon tetras given that they are battered and inhaled like aquatic french fries.

The rest of the afternoon is spent shopping for presents for the children (just checking to see if the kids are reading the website), but before heading back to the hotel and searching for dinner we take a stroll around the Spanish Steps. There we visit the cultural mecca that draws all visitors to Rome – McDonalds. Several decades ago we visited the McDonalds at the Spanish Steps, hearing of its legendary hamburgers and world renowned hot apple pies served over ancient Roman ruins. Entering then, we were struck by antique Roman mosaic floors and a festive fountain, but were asked to leave when Bill attempted to videotape this unique Italian adaptation of America. This time, we were free to film the sites, testimony to how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Deciding to dine lightly, we choose la Bruschetteria degli Angeli, right next door to our hotel (P.zza B. Cairoli, 2/a, tel. 06/68.80.89). The suffix –eria is a magical suffix in Italian that transforms anything mundane into the superlative. In this case a simple bruschetta, essentially toasted bread with toppings, such as olive paste, tomatoes or prosciutto is ennobled when served in a bruschetteria. But noble it is, and the perfect food to cap the perfect end of the perfect day. For while we have now been wandering and shopping and eating and sipping wine and drinking coffee and missing our kids and being amazed by imperial Roman, renaissance and modern art and architecture, it is time to close chapter one on our adventure. In all the excitement we have neglected to notice that we have been here for nearly three quarters of a day, that our internal clocks are set for somewhere around the Azores and that tomorrow morning we have a train to catch to the Amalfi coast. Roma, we hardly knew ye.

(N.B. While we were pleased with ourselves at not being taken in by gypsie cabbies at Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport, we notice late in the day that our Euros, dispensed earlier in the day from an ATM are running surprisingly low. It is then that it dawns on us that our honest, official taxi driver has scammed us in the most embarrassing way. For a fare of Euro 76, I tender Euro 80, a 50 and three 10s. He corrects me, saying that the fare is Euro 80 and that I have given him four 10s. Not noticing that he has switched the Euro 50 I have given him for a Euro 10 note, I give him four more 10s and, for good measure, throw on a Euro 10 tip. Total cost for a taxi from Fiumicino to our hotel – Euro 130. Being able to write about it on a travel blog – priceless.

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